22/1/18: For-Profit CSR: Bounds of Effectiveness?

Quite an interesting paper concerning the potential limitations to the structured CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) programs impact.

From the abstract (emphasis mine):

Prosocial incentives and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives are seen by many firms as an effective way to motivate workers. … We argue that the benefits crucially depend on the perceived intention of the firm. Workers use prosocial incentives as a signal about the firm's type and if used instrumentally in order to profit the firm, they can backfire. We show in an experiment in collaboration with an Italian firm, that monetary and prosocial incentives work very differently. While monetary incentives used instrumentally increase effort, instrumental charitable incentives backfire compared to non-instrumental incentives. This is especially true for non-prosocially-motivated workers who do not care about the prosocial cause but use prosocial incentives only as a signal about the firm. The results contribute to the understanding of the limits of prosocial incentives by focusing on their signaling value to the agent about the principal's type.”

Which raises some questions:

Often, these days, we think of CSR-to-improve-bottom-line ideas for structuring CSR and broader Social Impact programs. In the light of this research, should we continue focusing on the bottom line-linked CSR? Traditional corporate view of CSR has been that ’we spend resources to do good’. This perception of CSR within corporations quite often results in CSR function becoming secondary to other profit-centric functions. As a response to this, academics and consultants working in the field of Social Impact have advocated for years that companies and organisations need to define CSR as an organic profit-related function. The latest research suggests that this can be counter-productive to other objectives of the CSR programs.

If we do continue to focus on CSR as profit-related function in our teaching and research, what are the limitations to its effectiveness? The paper findings are based on a very restricted data set, derived from a single firm. We do not know the key factors driving the limitations uncovered in the study and we do not know how these factors translate into other geographical, cultural, social and macroeconomic contexts.

Are mixed/hybrid enterprises (socially-mandated for profit enterprises) have to rely on a biased selection of employees to mitigate for this effect? In other words, are mixed/hybrid enterprises, that explicitly rely on conflating the notions of Social Impact and profitability, subject to lower productivity risks when employing ’non-prosocially-motivated’ workers? If so, are systemic biasing filters used in selecting best-fit employees for such enterprises to avoid such workers? Can these filters be identified and tested against other biases (or worse, potential discriminatory hiring practices)?

As educators, we might think about structuring these questions into our classroom discussions. As researchers, we can see this study as opening up the gates for further research. The questions the study prompts are big, important and poorly researched.

Full paper: NBER Working Paper No. w24109 http://www.nber.org/papers/w24109
Ungated version: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3092527